Archive for the ‘Personal’ Category

10 May, 2014

The Hail Mary Pass

Tomorrow is Mother’s Day. I’m in the midst of many crises. On the one hand, the public – I live in a neighborhood where I am perpetually reminded of the American tendency to shut up and let others fight our battles so that we may preserve our veneer of bogus solicitude. On the other, private – including prom for a gorgeous freshly minted adult whose similarities of disposition with mine (speaking out, a gift for writing, a deadline-oriented academic rigour), are only matched by her complete dis-similarity, namely, (apart from her athleticism), a vast disregard for planning when it comes to clothing and presentation. It includes rushing into shoe shops ten minutes to closing to find the perfect shoes. It includes a freshly minted teenager in conniptions about what to wear to her 1000th bat/bar mitzvah. And it includes clothes flying out of my closet upon the lithe and graceful backs of daughters. Usually the same clothes they had so recently scorned as being beyond the pale when it comes to fashion. Uh-huh. Oh, it is hard not to gloat.

As I nipped in here to check in on this and that, I happened to write back to a dear friend whose exceedingly well brought up son, a chivalrous and handsome young man who is now in college, is due to arrive shortly to escort my daughter to her senior prom. A few years ago, when he was still only my height, I taught him Latin/ballroom dance in my class for kids between the ages of 11-14. A class I was inspired to take on after I watched the documentary, Mad Hot Ballroom, about a group of NYC kids. My daughter and many of her friends were among those in the class. Little time has passed. And a great deal, too. Here they will be in a few short hours, looking like they never jumped around in socks to Lou Bega’s Mambo No. 5 at the end of class.

Where was I going with this? Oh yes, that email. In writing to her I was reminded that this young man stepped in to rescue her from the ridiculousness of having to wait for a “promposal” from some inept high schooler. Instead, she will go to prom with someone who has, over the years, cooked for her family, walked and run her dog, lead her onstage in a jerky but charming tango, and even, during a blizzard in Maine, towed her maternal grandmother in a sled through the snows to his house for Easter dinner. This date was a scheme cooked up by two mothers, as mothers the world over have cooked up schemes to rescue their sons and daughters, sometimes from each other.

The phrase “the Hail Mary” popped into my head as I wrote her back. I’m sure most people who read this blog know what this term means, but here it is for those who may not:

The phrase Hail Mary was coined by Roger Staubach , the quarterback of Dallas Cowboys after throwing the football to Drew Pearson in the NFL divisional playoff match in the year 1975-76. The move turned out to be a winning touchdown pass. A Hail Mary is considered an offensive move where the quarterback sends the ball up with no specific receiver being targeted but just hoping that one of his team members would successfully catch it.

It has entered the vernacular to mean a last ditch effort to save what is worth saving. And I was reminded of the hundreds of times I have been called upon over the years to answer that prayer for this particularly errant and absent-minded oldest daughter of mine. The numerous times when I have procured everything from a Cliff bar to a necessary totem before a meet, from arguing her case (successfully), with a national outdoor program to reconsider their decision to deny her admission, to persuading a college to award her a scholarship (also successfully). All of it was deserved, it took no great skill, just great love.

And it reminded me of the thousands of times my mother did the same for me and for my older brothers. Hers, like mine, was not always an easy love to bear, but it was an easy love to take for granted. She persuaded a physician to remove the word “possibly” from the phrase “possibly negligible” on my brother’s medical record when he was admitted to college in the U.S. It was a clearance for Tuberculosis, a completely benign trace of which exists in every Sri Lankan vaccinated during a global effort to eradicate it from the populace. Nothing would come between her son and the safety guaranteed him by his leaving a country where boys were being disappeared by the dozen. Nothing would come between her daughter the preservation of her dignity, either, when the nuns sought fit to expel me from the convent I attended.

But the story that I am reminded of most is the one where my mother, even after realizing that I had lied through my teeth to (a) get a friend permission to attend a party and (b) stolen – yes, I admit it, stolen! – money from my mother for a wash-and-blow-dry hair appointment that I had told her was free, still played along so that my friend’s parents would not know what a dreadful creature (that’s what she called me privately as she berated me all the way to the hair appointment), I was. My mother taught me that brand of love, the one that would defend to the death the one who is loved, against all odds, and beyond all reason. The kind of love that alone is worth living for.

It is, I know, a form of madness. It leaves me, sometimes, feeling depleted and crazed, questioning my own sanity and wracked with self-doubt. But in the end, I have never regretted any of it. Not the many rides to school, nor the time I marched in and requested of the befuddled school secretary that she exacts detention on this serial late-comer, not the late night sojourns to procure “twenty apples for tomorrow!” nor the times I have flung everything out of a hideously ill-managed closet and delivered my ultimate punishment “clean it up you ingrate!” not the time that, “Karate Kid” (new movie version) style before that movie was ever made, I have asked her to pick up the coat dropped on the floor, walk to the closet and hang it up bring it back, throw it on the floor, pick it up, walk to the closet and hang it up, 100 times, nor the moment I watched her walk in with a list – a list! – of things that are wrong with me (me?!), and listened as she went through each one, not the times I have heard her cry and sometimes said “get a grip,” not the times when I’ve seen no tears but have known enough to ask, “what is going on, sweetheart?” And never the times I have simply opened my arms.

Thinking now of my mother, I realize that all of those times, every single one, were about opening my arms wide and saying this is a safe place. There was a time when I would wrap her in my robe every morning as she got ready for kindergarten, and we would talk about how safe and cozy she was in my “house.” She doesn’t fit inside my robe anymore. But I know that this evening when she stands there in her borrowed dress, and her last-minute glittery shoes, and her graduation-gift jewelery, and that other mother’s son beside her, offering his steady arm and comforting presence, she’ll still be safe with me.

I may even recite the Hail Mary, a prayer that has often sprung to my lips as an ambulance passes by, a prayer I have taught my daughters to recite, too. It has always felt like the right prayer, the prayer when all others fall on deaf ears. Little wonder that it is attached to that most masculine of games, football. Mothers will catch every pass. They will make sure your uniform is clean before the game. They’ll get you to the game on time. And when the goal is made, they will miraculously also be there to cheer from the sidelines like any other spectator. Whether you see them or not, they will be there.

So here’s a little Ave Maria for all of you and Happy Mother’s Day to those who play Mary to sons and daughters of your own!

18 December, 2013

Bourbon & (Mothers) Milk?

I am over at American Short Fiction today, talking about my favorite good/bad mothers in fiction alongside a group of excellent folk like Xhenet Aliu, Alexi Zentner, Eugene Cross, Shann Ray, and J. Capó Crucet You can read the whole piece here. Below, an excerpt (this one from Xhenet):

When I read Jamaica Kincaid’s “Girl,” of course I find myself oppressed by the mother’s admonitions and lessons. Of course I want to pluck the broom from that poor girl’s hands. Of course I want to insist that sluttery isn’t in the swing of a hip but in the eyes of those who are terrified of sex and any form that reminds them of their own fear. Of course I resent the overbearing, unnamed but monstrously present mother—and yet I find myself wondering, secretly, if the mother believes she’s actually doing something right, and if that counts for anything. I wonder if the mother thinks that doling out a little bit of pain will spare her daughter from a well of it. Even if the mother is wrong—about how best to armor a daughter, about where the biggest hurts spring from—I can’t help but find a teeny sliver of tenderness in there, the kind of maternal hardness that’s like an autoimmune response: a natural defense in functional, small doses, and painful, even fatal, when unrelenting.

26 October, 2013


There’s a Billy Joel song that I learned to sing when I was home in Sri Lanka and when I began to write this, the lyrics came back to me. It’s a song about people in relationships, I suppose, but it could be said that this quality, honesty, is what we seek from anybody we meet.

Lies are good enough, useful feeding the imagination. Santa and the Tooth Fairy are special beings in my life, pieces of magic that I hope never disappear. Still, what I value most from anybody it seems is that they tell me exactly what is on their mind. Airbrushing has never appealed to me; more than once I’ve pointed out to people who are yet to meet me that I will attempt to look like my author picture but that I’m likely to fail!

Enter Mom. I first met Mark’s mother when I was a freshman in college. When we walked in the front door at 185 West Norwalk Road, CT 06850 (funny how I’ve never forgotten that address, particularly the zip code), Mark got a real embrace and warm greetings before his mother turned around to say hello to me. I remember thinking she is more committed to making sure he knows she loves him, than she is to making me, a stranger, feel welcome. It was the first of many cultural differences that would rise up to create distance between us. (Burgers for dinner? Where was the full-out spread that one would produce for first-time guests?)

And yet, this is also what I have come to love the most about her. She is always who she is. What she says is truly what she means, and she is always right. I’ve been furious at her for asking me the difficult questions (why, instead of complaining about having to move to the middle of Maine in deference to Mark’s desire to work there, won’t I find a job I like?), but I have grown to understand the wisdom behind her words. The best piece of advice I ever received about marriage came from her. I was describing a moment during the early days of my relationship with Mark, an altercation with a student worker at the library, where I felt he had not defended me even though I was in the wrong (ish). She said, pay attention to those things for they will be the things you will come back to repeatedly over the years ahead.

Her words have reminded me also to remember myself, who I am. Upon returning from the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference for the first time, looking at my photographs, listening to my euphoric tales of my time there, she asked me what it was about the conference and that place that made me so utterly happy. That person you are in such a place – a place that makes you happy – is the person you are, she said, because happiness comes from being affirmed for being most truly ourselves.

I recall that during a visit from her to the apartment we shared in sin one summer while I was still in college and Mark had graduated, I happened to be reading a book that I had picked up off a bargain table titled Men Who Are Good for You and Men Who Are Bad for You: How to Tell the Difference by a Dr. Suzanna Hoffman. I kept looking for Mark among the three (yes, I think there were only three), good ones, but he wasn’t to be found. There were elements of him in each of them, but no one composite “good” label could be applied to the guy I was dating. Mom looked through the book very quickly, dog-earned one of them and handed it back to me saying she had found him. I opened the page to read about “The Secret Manipulator: The One Everybody Loves But Who Somehow Always Gets His Way.” It wasn’t so much a condemnation of the less worthy aspects of her own son, but a reminder that being less than perfect does not make us less deserving of being loved.

I am always inclined to see people as children, to identify in the faces of adults, traces of the child they once were, those qualities that remain long after we are suddenly colonized – often against our will – by the expectations of Real Life. But it stands to particular reason that over the years when we’ve gone through tough times, the person I think about most often is Mark’s mother. When he is beyond being lovable I see him through her eyes. Mom’s son, I think. How much she loves him, how much good she wishes for him, and, despite all shortcomings (all of which she recognizes and has pointed out), how much she must hope that I will be kind, forgiving, and see my way through the difficulties and back to love.

Such lessons aren’t imparted by people who are afraid of looking reality, even grim reality, head on. Sure, it might be her >180 IQ or her Mensa membership that allows her to be who she is, but I prefer to think that she is gifted with emotional intelligence, the kind that operates without filters. The only kind that allows for the filters that should be used in the aftermath: to see what is so we can figure out what can be.

Ours isn’t a rosy relationship. More than once I have got under her skin with my demands for re-arranging the seating around the Thanksgiving table, my refusal to stop talking about Palestine, or bringing completely random people to her house and expecting her to put them up, and so on. And I don’t think I’ll ever quite get over being referred to as “the tiger by the tail,” with regard to her son, or her not-so-subtle alluding to the idea that I might run off with the Latin/Ballroom dancer, or start cavorting overmuch with too many big-name male writers, but I can honestly say that I love her deeply for who she is, and that among the compliments I’ve received from her son, the one I treasure the most is that I was someone he thought his mother would really like. And the addendum: she is very smart and very hard to please, but you, unlike the other girlfriends who were intimidated by her, can stand your own ground.

Happy birthday to the long cool woman in a black dress!

13 October, 2013

My Mother’s Sweet Death

Some days I forget the exact day on which I lost my mother. Some days I remember that we lose and find people when they are alive, and some days I can forgive myself for having lost her so often and for not finding her when she was still here. Other days I am aware of her here, ever present, never lost. And almost every day I can find my mother in the words written by my brother in the newspapers back home, in articles that affirm her gifts and absence by demonstrating how she lives on in his own world view.

Over these past years I have written about my mother in different ways. The first year, so full of grief, the second so full of reconciliation, the third, wordlessly but for what I posted on Facebook. I have written of the poetry she brought to me, the way she raised me, and the way her wisdom found me in words I needed to hear on the very day I needed to hear them.

My mother exists in a physical way among my belongings here in this study where I write.

– In the one complete cross-stitch tapestry I made in my life, a gift to her that she never hung up.

– In the framed picture of her above my bookcase where she sits, one of only two female teachers at the top boys’ school in Sri Lanka, young and soldiering on.

– In the photograph of her that sits behind my desk beside which I have placed a photograph of me as a very young child, something to remind me that, though I tormented myself with concern for her, my lapses were rooted in the fact that I was the child, not she. In the twisted gold metal flower that one of my daughters, the artistic one, made, resting delicately against her photograph in homage to the mother she was, in the twisted gold metal heart made by the same daughter resting equally delicately against that photograph of me in acknowledgement of the fact that she, too, deserved to be loved.

– In the tissue-bag that contains the many cards and the book of condolences written by those who came to her funeral among which is this note from a sister-in-law with whom she wasn’t always on the best of terms, but whom she cared for as she cared for everybody, giving the best of herself: Thank you very much Indrani Akka, for teaching me to sing songs and also teaching me to dance the cha-cha and waltz. We had a great time at Kandana those days. May you attain the supreme bliss of Nirvana.

– In the package I discovered just a few weeks ago, the last one I had addressed to her, still addressed to her, a gift of a book of poems, Eruipedes’ MEDEA (Oxford University Press, 2006) translated by Michael Collier that he had signed for her that year at Bread Loaf. I had chosen this as a gift from someone I love unabashedly for someone who did not always understand the shape of my love for her, this mother who taught both poetry and Greek literature. In it, he writes: For Ru’s mother, with gratitude for the gift of your wonderful daughter. I hope one day to meet you. I read those words and I think about the fact that she never heard those words of praise for me, but Michael had met my mother in me, for a great part of the strength and resilience and warmth I have came directly from her.

When I returned from Sri Lanka after her funeral in 2009, I brought with me a suitcase full of her papers and journals. I intended to sort through them when I got home, to give her something she had always craved but never received from us: a curiosity about her interiority. But, four years on, I have only opened it once, and that, to pick up one journal from her time as an undergraduate where I read only two entries. One, about visiting home and helping her mother by bathing her youngest sister, and washing and ironing the clothes of another, a second about a visit from my father. Beyond this, I have been unable to go. I look at that suitcase as I open the front door each day, glance sideways imagining its contents, but I have not opened it. I don’t know when I will, though I am glad that somehow “her things,” these paper-based things that she most cherished, are with me. The one thing I returned to Sri Lanka were the letters that my father wrote to her, things he asked to take back with him. I don’t know if he has read them, whether in reading them he has found some insight into the person she was before she became his wife, our mother.

This time when I was home, I came across a few last papers of hers, letters written from her mother and father to her. In their letters I find a girl who felt responsible for the family from which she hailed, a deep love for the entirety of it, including the far extended family, a girl happy in her accomplishments at college, involved in studying English literature, playing tennis, and learning ballroom dance. A gay soul, a spirited, happy person, a person I only saw in glimpses, and usually when we were alone together. Those letters and these, her collection of “little books,” the ones in which she wrote down the innumerable names and phone numbers and, later, email addresses of her hundreds of friends and students, many in Sri Lanka still, most abroad living the lives they thank her for making possible with her teaching, encouragement, affirmation, letters of reference and excuse, and prayers. Among all her writings, these little books tell the story of a life marked by attention to people, to the connections made, the bonds forged and kept unbroken, no matter how long the absences, how infrequent the visits, how great the distances. My mother’s world beyond our home was a web of infinite possibility and connection, a vast tapestry of generosity and love. If we, her children, sometimes failed her, if her expectations of us were too great, our long-ago grievances seem so insignificant in the face of all that she was to so many other children.

My brother, Malinda, wrote a reflection today about a grandmother he met, in memory of my mother. This lady, after spending time with him, had exclaimed that she had found a son. It made me smile to read that, knowing how most older women who meet this particular brother want to keep them for their own as son or grandson. And it made me smile also in remembering my mother, the way in which she flung her arms around the world, taking its daughters, but mostly its sons, for her own. Remembering also that, despite all that is forgivable and all that can only be forgotten, the three names and addresses that don’t appear in these little books were the ones that meant the most to her. Wherever she is, I hope she forgives me for sometimes forgetting that simple truth.

Tomorrow I will plant flowers for her. No alliums among them, this year, but others chosen for similar reasons by her grand-daughters. Because she would like these particular colors, they say, as if she will be here, come Spring, to see the flowers bloom. They are nothing like the flowers she planted in her lifetime, but perhaps she will visit.

But maybe more even than the flowers this time around she might like to know that her grand-daughters remember her sweetness this way, recalling the times that she would state her longing for sweets, disregarding the orders of various doctors, declaring that on her gravestone (a gravestone that she, a Buddhist, would never have), should be inscribed the legend, she died a sweet death. Whether she knew it or not, none of her children, not those thousands, nor us three, ever wished her less when her day came.

23 September, 2013

Poem for My Brother

Today is my brother’s birthday. It is also a day that was his birthday, since my today is already his tomorrow in Sri Lanka. I wanted to write something about this brother of mine, something that speaks to the intensity of the love I feel for him, the regard I have for him, but mostly the ineffable quality that keeps us looking out for each other from this great distance. It is not something that needs to be mentioned, really, but it is something we both understand is there, like the magic potion concocted by Getafix, or the secret strength of super-heroes. That thing you call upon when you are all out of luck and yet you remain standing, secure in the knowledge that help is near and that you know its source.

I recall a time long ago when I was visiting my brother while he was studying in Boston and I in Maine. A friend of his was telling the story of how he and my brother were together playing tennis at a court near their apartment in Cambridge, and the altercation that unfolded. Apparently, their laughter over a joke they were sharing was (mis)taken to be derision aimed at a White teenager, who decided to fight my brother. My brother is the one whom the piano teacher pitied for the weakness of his fingers. “Yeah, Malinda of course,” she would say, with a little inhale-exhale, dabbing at her powdered nose with one of her innumerable fresh handkerchiefs, “his fingers… he has to practice.” My brother is the one whom I, the younger, could frighten out of his wits simply by leaping out at him from behind fridges and doors. My brother is the one who caught hepatitis, suffered a fractured leg that put him on bed rest for months, who had his forehead cut open, and who was always served milk with Marie biscuits each evening while my other older brother and I were deemed sturdy enough for tea. Perhaps it is in compensation for this perceived fraility of body that my brother grew up to withstand more emotional and spiritual upheaval than the rest of the family combined, weathering imprisonment and loss with an equanmity that the rest of us are yet to match.

But that was yet to come.

On that day, listening to this story, I remember the anger that built up in my own body when his friend answered my question as to what he did for my brother that day, with a “I was scared! I ran.” How could he? I demanded to know. “You ran? You had a tennis raquet in your hand and you ran? I would not have run,” I declared, all 100 pounds of me quaking with rage, ready to go back and find the thug who had threatened my brother. I remember my brother laughing. He said, “X is Sri Lankan, but he grew up here. That’s why he ran.” I just want to say, he was wrong. It has nothing to do with where we grow up, it has to do with love. I may be 8,771 odd miles away from my brother, but I would fight for him any day. Even without a tennis raquet. This poem, not mine, explains why.

For What Binds Us

There are names for what binds us:
strong forces, weak forces.
Look around, you can see them:
the skin that forms in a half-empty cup,
nails rusting into the places they join,
joints dovetailed on their own weight.
The way things stay so solidly
wherever they’ve been set down—
and gravity, scientists say, is weak.

And see how the flesh grows back
across a wound, with a great vehemence,
more strong
than the simple, untested surface before.
There’s a name for it on horses,
when it comes back darker and raised: proud flesh,

as all flesh,
is proud of its wounds, wears them
as honors given out after battle,
small triumphs pinned to the chest—

And when two people have loved each other
see how it is like a
scar between their bodies,
stronger, darker, and proud;
how the black cord makes of them a single fabric
that nothing can tear or mend.

(Jane Hirshfield, “For What Binds Us” from Of Gravity & Angels. Copyright © 1988 by Jane Hirshfield)

28 August, 2013

Rick Simonson: 10 Years Old in 1963

I have been listening to the run up to the celebrations of this day, and of course the speeches made today at the Lincoln Memorial. It is strange that the first time I heard about that memorial, it was through my mother and father speaking to me about Marian Anderson. My mother had heard her sing at the Peradeniya University where they, my parents, were students, a performance broadcast to the standing-outside multitudes via loudspeakers. Neither of them have ever spoken of any other voice with quite the same reverence. Through her recollections, I heard of this voice that had rung over the assembled in a city called Washington DC in a country called America. Much later I learned to sing ‘A Church is Burning,’ as one among our repertoire for an entry to a national festival of ballads. I’d heard of Birmingham, but I didn’t really know what any of this truly meant. It came to me in music that I could sing with heart, but not in history that I could actually see in my heart. It happened before I was born, in a country I wouldn’t really know until I was a college student, and not very well until many years after, when living here had become what I would choose to do, when colour became more complicated than saying someone was “fair” or “dark,” the only words I’d ever used before to describe complexion, when the word “colour” became, by itself, no longer a descriptor but an unwieldly, shape-shifting misnomer.

And so, to today, when I found myself watching and listening, but as a bystander rather than a participant. I know what I have come to know, and witness, and speak out on behalf of, but this is a struggle whose roots go back to a place of origin that I can only glimpse. I was delighted, therefore, to receive this note from a friend, someone who had been “here when,” whose life was transformed by the events of this day, fifty years ago, and by that speech. A speech whose candence and words would have made a deep impact on someone who would dedicate their own life to the celebration of words. It gave me a chance to relive this day as it might have seemed to me if I had been not a still unborn future hyphenated dual citizen, but rather a boy growing up in Nebraska.

Thinking this morning of how old I was, fifty years ago. I had just turned ten. Getting ready for fifth grade. Mrs Armstrong, Calvert School. A bored, end of summer day on my hands. I had two best friends then – they lived on our street – Bill and Mike. Neither must have been about, so on my own I went into our basement where we had the tv to see what was on. Then it was about three or four channels that gave you what you might get., I don’t know if I tried changing channels, if what I was ran on all three or not, but what I saw was so spellbinding that I found myself riveted – and watched for however many hours I did.

First, this incredible marching, assembling crowd. I had never seen as many people thronging about like this – walking, these signs … I hadn’t been to Washington, DC, but had seen photographs – the Capitol, the Lincoln Memorial, all of that, all usually depicted with these park-like swaths of open grounds around them, that long reflecting pool. Here were all these people. I knew what they were about, what the march was about., There had been so many stories in the news – both on tv, and in the weekly magazines that came to our house – Time, Life (lots of photos), Look (ditto). I knew (then) this was about the South – where slavery had been, where basic rights were denied now.

But that this was a coming together – a demonstration (it must have been a new word to me) in Washington. I was trying to comprehend, I suspect, what this was, what was intended, how it related to what was happening in the South. A demonstration … Commentators must have helped with some of that. The sight of all these people – Negroes, as it was couched then, and white people. So many. With signs which said things that made impressions.

At some point the moving, the marching must have stopped, for a program with speakers was then shown. There wasn’t a lot of moving camera work. I remember a pretty fixed shot close to the speakers’ podium. I then remember various people speaking. This – all in black and white – must have been the first time I remember little white captions, words on the screen saying who people sometimes were. Roy Wilkens of the NAACP seemed to moderate, or at least was there talking a lot. I felt like he was introducing and/or making announcements. There was also Bayard Rustin – I remember the name ‘Bayard’ being unusual and that he was from the porters’ union – one of the most powerful organized groups of Negroes, a labor union of train attendants (I had to figure out what a porter was). There were famous people there, actors – Harry Belafonte. Probably Sidney Poitier and I think, Sammy Davis, Jr. That would have been about it for people I would have known. A James Baldwin would have been lost on me. People who sang there – The Freedom Singers, Joan Baez and Bob Dylan (at age 22,, I would later figure) would have been lost on me.

Whatever I knew of him before – I knew some things – by the time he was done speaking, Martin Luther King, Jr. was not lost on me. Not to go into all of what he said. I doubt I remembered much on the spot. But the long, slow, deliberate pace and weight with which he spoke (he who was only 34). The rising, peak and valley crescendo of talk came at the end, the part that short clips all play, but those really got their soaring, wave-like power from the slow buildup that preceded it. I remember all of that pouring right into me, including that at the end.

And then it must have been over. I must have climbed the stairs out of the dark basement (it was like coming out of a cave), I must have stepped back out into the late afternoon … and resumed whatever was up, seen if Bill or Mike was home yet, heard what our own house’s schedule was like (when Dad would be home, what time dinner, what dinner might be) … I don’t think I felt like I could really talk about what I’d seen, at least not to the places in me it went. Even as I was going about my 10-year-old daily business, something in me felt deeply altered.

How wonderful to think of the way that moments change our lives, particuarly the lives of children. I think about all that this boy would go on to do, the words of relevant people ushered forth, not simply what is deemed famous or fashionable, but what is good and important and life-altering.

Today is a good day to remember these things. To remember, also, that odd-sounding name, Bayard Rustin, opined upon today in the Wall Street Journal, a central figure without whom no march might have taken place, a gay man whose personal life was reviled in public by many who also participated in that march. To place that bit of information next to this other remembrence today: this day on which we mourn a young transgendered woman, Islan Nettles, murdered in Harlem because of her sexual preferences. And to remember what we choose to say and do when we are given the opportunity. A good day to remember exactly which anthem Marian Anderson chose to sing on that long ago day, and why she might have done so.

Here she is.

26 June, 2013

A Friend of My Heart

I have a good friend, a dear one who does all kinds of favors for me, practical ones and impractical outrageous ones. Mostly, she listens to me. She reminds me of home. Recently I had a chance to visit her where she now lives, both of us far from the place where we were born, very far from the convent we both attended, even further from much of our convent ethics. But some things never change.

I was moved when she stopped her car in the middle of traffic to give some money to a man on the street. I always think of the fact that I came here from another country, she said. I’ve worked hard, but look at how I live. I imagine what I’d feel like if I had to beg on the streets of Colombo. This is his country and yet he is on the streets.

She talked of other things, the various ways we come upon our circumstances, the addictions we all have, but only fell a few of us. She remained quiet, mostly, on such occasions, she told me, but she took exception to the way in which people condemn others. People who drop a coin in a cup and then walk on thinking what is the point, he’s going to drink anyway. We recalled the teaching handed down to us, the ones which tell us that it is the intention that matters, not the outcome. You give what you can and you remain separate from whatever the person chooses to do with what is given.

We stopped by a home to pick up “home” food, an American version of the buth packets we all like to buy now and again from various street vendors back home. These came in plastic containers, not steamed banana leaves or newspaper, but it tasted the same. As we walked out I noticed a Buddhist temple across the street. I asked her if we could visit, I hadn’t been inside a Sri Lankan Buddhist temple in a long time. The doors were shut but we went around the back and found the head priest sitting there. He offered to open the doors, but we demurred, stating that we were just passing by, had only stopped by on a whim. He gestured us to come in, then, with the palm of his hand, and we obliged, taking off our shoes, both of us sinking to the floor, our legs folded decorously, our palms together, heads bowed. He blessed us with the most familiar of the opening lines, the pirith falling gently in that open verendah, that hot afternoon. It was only as we stood to go and she addressed him the way that one might address a Catholic priest that I remembered that she was not Buddhist.

It warmed my heart, this moment when I remembered once again the way things are back home, where for most people like us, religion is not a crusade but a grace, faith something to acknowledge wherever it is manifested, no matter if it comes from within chapels adorned in stained glass, or temples where we kneel on sifted sand. We talked about that, too, as we left.

We spoke about our parents back home, her lost father, my lost mother. I remembered a visit back home when I was sitting in a parked car with my mother and other family, waiting for my father to return from some store. There was a man outside, begging, clothed in rags, emaciated, almost repulsive. My mother searched in her handbag for change to give him. The driver of the vehicle said what did it matter, he’s just an alcoholic or drug addict who will go and waste the money that is given. I, a new mother, said, almost to myself, he has a mother somewhere who never intended a life such as this for him. I remember my mother turning to me and saying, I am glad you have learned something, at least one thing, from me in this life. If she were alive she might be happier still to learn that what I emulated has been passed along, something I noted in this article when Osama bin Laden was murdered.

I told my friend that story. We talked on through the evening about those things we acquire from the people who raise us, the way they continue to look at the world through our eyes when they are gone, the way we continue to see through theirs in their absence.

In all the travels I have done with this book, nothing meant as much to me as being able to remember my home and our parents in this way with her.

14 May, 2013

Pub Date II

A long time ago, it seems, I wrote a post here called ‘On Publication,’ during pub-week for A Disobedient Girl. I just re-read that this morning. Funny how clarity of thought about some particular things comes to each of us when it is necessary to have it. I realize, looking back, that this is still how I feel about publication. If there is a difference, then it is that I am even more aware that the life of a book is not so much about the book but about the people who surround it – those who bring it forth, those who receive it, those who hand it to readers, and the readers who give it their time.

Yesterday I had the pleasure of reading in my “home” town of Philadelphia, among many friends and family, most of whom had played some role in the making of this book, either by taking care of all the rest of my life while I went missing for weeks at a time to write, or by turning a blind eye to the state of sleep-deprived, deadline-driven misery that I require in order to finish anything of worth, that glassy eyed look that comes when I realize that the world is beautiful and the days are sunny and oh dear god I cannot move, I must sit, sit, sit, and read and write and read and write and doesn’t anybody care?! Oh! Why doesn’t anybody care?! Yes, those people were there, dressed up, taking pictures, asking questions and making me feel good.

There will be many things to write about, many images to share, along the way. But for now I’m going to share a few photographs from the time along the way, a visual reminder that the glossy dust jacket and the nicely bound book had its own story before it got there.

In my room where I sat for eight hours each day with breaks for lunch, chocolate tea from David’s, and a solitary walk, and wrote the first draft of the book.

The grove I stumbled upon on the day of my arrival, and where I went to spend the first anniversary of my mother’s death, which also was the day I finished that draft. The flowers I placed on that grave, which belonged to a mother who lost everything and still found a way to make such an enduring gift to artists, lasted a long time in the upstate NY Fall cold, and many of my new-found friends would tell me how they were doing long after I had gone. On that particular day, I read this poem in memory of my mother, a poem given to me by the poet who made it:

Spell to Be Said Upon Departure
by Jane Hirshfield

What had come here to do
having finished,
shelves of the water lie flat.

Copper the leaves of the doorsill,
yellow and falling.
Scarlet the bird that is singing.

Vanished the labor, here walls are.
Completed the asking.
Loosing the birds there is water.

Having eaten the pears.
Having eaten
the black figs, the white figs. Eaten the apples.

Table be strewn.
Table be strewn with stems,
table with peelings of grapefruit and pleasure.

Table be strewn with pleasure,
what was here to be done having finished.

Editing in a different space. I would write notes to myself in the night after all the work was done and I was in reading mode, and then paste them on the desk so I could cross things off as I went. I’d work all day with a break for lunch and a quiet, solitary walk (except for a post-dinner walk which often included the lovely Cathy Chung, in which case we’d be fleeing cows and shrieking with laughter.

There is always time to kiss the horses on a walk.

More editing. Work all day, with a break for lunch and solitary mostly walk but sometimes run sojourn. Quaker quiet before meals. And watching the night-blooming primrose flower, in real time, sitting on the bench silently with others at the Quaker retreat where I was staying.

Final edits. Such desperation. Such angst. Such panic. Really? You want me to put this into the hands of a mail carrier? You don’t want me to scan and mail? I’m impressed the mail-carrier did not care that I looked like an un-washed, un-rested, bug-eyed lunatic in my shabby lounge-about clothes and boots with no socks. Oh, and that the precious words made it from here to Minneapolis.

Which is to say, I went through a great many changes that paralled the changes being made to this thing of beauty, and some aspects of those things made their way into the language and direction of this book. I would have loved to have been able to sign one of these in gift to my mother, but also know that losing her was folded into this creation, the way that everything we experience transforms everything we experience after.

People often asked me – after the first novel – how my book was doing. Whenever I heard that question, I would think of my friends, the ones who were brilliant and talented, but had no publisher yet, the ones who were not as gifted but who did have their work out, published, and everybody in between. In such a world, how does one judge how well a book is doing? In such a world, I celebrate the absolute miracle of seeing the stories that came to me without my going in search of them, that got written through so much else in my life, that found welcome in the heart of an agent and an editor I respect deeply, and was then made, with the assistance of many hands more accomplished than mine, into what they are now, these books.

How well is my book doing? My book is doing great!

22 March, 2013


I’ve been sitting here at my desk trying to sort out some things. I realize that almost all of it has to do with friendship, the kind that impacts our lives deeply and whose changes cause the kind of reverberations that transform how we will approach the world in the future. Today, for instance, I feel fragile. Much of the joy that I have been feeling – almost all of it – drained out of the day.

I’ve had many occasions on which I have had to reflect on the vagaries of friendships. Mostly it has to do with the sudden realization that what it means to my American friends is not what it means to me. For me, a friend is anybody I’ve met (and who hasn’t pissed me off). For that person I will do very nearly anything. If I like the person then I’m wont to imagine that I will love this person for life, and, worse, that they will love me back – how could they not? This is what I think. I seem unable to contemplate the fact – sometimes eventuality – that this will, in all likelihood, not happen, that most people weigh the worth of what they love before they choose to love it.

The thing about it is that the present dislocation also throws the past sense of ease and affection into question. Making sense of that past is similar – less drastic, but similar – to what Joan Wickersham describes in The Suicide Index, (Mariner, 2009), her book that deals with the aftermath of her father’s suicide. Everything you believed or thought you knew about the person is suddenly suspect. And you are left with the feeling that you have been either blind, foolish, or both. In her case she might ask, how could this father, whose way of being made me who I am, who loved me so much, decide that he would leave me, and do so in this heart-shattering way? In mine I might ask, how could this person with whom I’ve shared such a personal part of me decide that s/he would shut me out, or talk badly about me, or think ill of me – you pick, and do so without a second thought?

I once had someone whom I’d stood by in everything over two decades – even when she treated me pretty abysmally, and after, through her abortions and her depression and the eventual birth of her firstborn – write me a letter, an email, no less, to tell me how I had failed her in two very specific ways. Both times it was through things I had said, laughingly uttered in complete trust that we were kindred spirits, feeling the same way about the same ridiculous things. In subsequent years I’ve dealt with some such moments – all of them incomprehensible to me, all of them unanticipated – but possibly none as devastating as that one was. And still we muddled through, she and I, and came out the other end reasonably intact. It has been my sense when these things happen, that I forgive the ones I like – I write fiction, after all, and I can come up with a 1001 excuses for the things people do. The slightly-damaged people, in particular, I find a way to get back home, as it were, with them.

But there are lessons I’ve had to face, each time, and each time unlearn. I hope to forget these things, as always, to not take them too deeply to heart someday – not today, today they have settled within, making me mostly stare out of my window and grieve deeply for what is lost. I hope to because I like the way I have chosen to live – this way of embracing people and being with them, close and unfiltered, being mistaken in the things I take as givens, opening myself completely to whatever it is that they are about.

Lesson #1
We don’t interact as people, we interact as stories. Half the time what we think is conscious intent is really unconscious narrative. All of it is a backstory and we dance around like we are the main protagonists. In other words, we think we unfold in NY, but NY is its own unfolding.

Lesson #2
The words that you say aren’t always the ones that are heard. This is a hard one for a person like me whose entire life is about words; if someone cannot hear them, or understand them, then they have not known me at all, no matter how much time they’ve spent with me. That is tough to take – I’m sure those of of my friends who also write can empathize.

Lesson #3
Most people choose self-protection over abandonment. It is easier to hold on to what you have than to let go in free-fall. Free-falling is thrilling and joyful and risky. People usually prefer safety.

Lesson #4
Of all the horrors that escaped from Pandora’s box, pride exacts the highest price.

Lesson #5
In his memoir, The End of the World As We Know It: Scenes From a Life, (Algonquin, 2007), Robert Goolrick writes, “If you don’t receive love from the ones who are meant to love you, you will never stop looking for it.” I would add that such a person will always seek to confirm the absence – never the presence – of that withheld love and so guarantee that it will never be felt. It is easier to do this than to forgive the mistakes of flawed human beings, particularly those who are supposed to be like gods to their children. Which brings me to this last.

Lesson #6
A person who cannot forgive, is not capable of love. I think back to that BFF and the falling out, the bitter things that were said by us both. I think also about another BFF, an American one this time, and I, the dreadful hurtful words that were uttered. And yet, somehow, there is still love. I don’t know for sure that they love me back, just as hard, but I have to believe they do because their very brokenness – like my own – convinces me that they are as capable of forgiveness, and therefore love, as I am. We, all of us, acquire grace because we understand our own fractures, and it is that grace that permits forgiveness. Without that hard-earned grace our hearts don’t have a chance of becoming something pliant, tender, hospitable to love.

So there it is. There’s more, perhaps, but this is all I am able to write, having spent this day so much in contemplation and withdrawal. I don’t feel great today, but someday I will. And when I do I hope to return to being the person I was: incautious, joyful, wide-open to whatever life brings, softer-hearted even than I am now. Somewhere in that future I hope that the people I have loved will find it in themselves to forgive me, too.

19 March, 2013

Basketball Dreaming

I don’t know too much about basketball. I don’t know too much about baseball either. But I can get madly excited about both. There is something about feeling one with a large group of people cheering for a team, putting our souls into their hands, that gets the blood flowing. And, like in most other things that I take on – with the exception of love – I never expect or anticipate or fear loss. It comes, sometimes, but I am never there until the last long-shot from one end of the court is made, until the final strike out is called. I hope until the very end.

These days it is basketball that has my attention. Specifically, the Lower Merion High School team, the one that has always boasted an exceptional group of starters, but has not won States since Kobe Bryant lead them to victory in 1996. March 1st, 1996 to be precise. Like this:

So the Aces had another shot at beating arch-rival Chester this year, 17 years on, on the same day. They held their own through the third quarter and finally lost. Oh well.

But there’s something else about this team that has won my heart: their fans. Their fans who show up and stack up like sardines, end to end of a section of the stands they refer to as ‘The Dawg Pound.’

In the fall of 1999, Coach Gregg Downer met with the team and a group of student fan leaders to officially launch “The Pound.” More than just a “student section,” the Pound would lead chants, promote games, organize tailgates and road trips and design official t-shirts like a college-style student fan club. Fueled by their energized student fan base, the 1999-00 Aces rode the spirit and enthusiasm of “Dawg Pound I” to 15 consecutive wins, a Central League title, and a state playoff bid.

Year in and year out, the Dawg Pound helps give the Aces a distinct home court advantage. Each year brings a new style and design to the official Dawg Pound shirt. Each year leaders emerge at the forefront of the Dawg Pound, donning crazy costumes (Captain America, Superman, Batman, etc.) and sharing their unrelenting vocal chords and witty cheers.

During the Cinderella playoff run of 2004-05, the Dawg Pound caught the state’s attention for travelling en masse to far-flung gyms. Playing in the Western bracket, the Aces were forced to journey hundreds of miles for their games. No distance proved too great as busload after busload of fans showed up — including 12 student buses (nearly 700 total students) for a Tuesday night game against Erie Prep at State College.

I go to the games as much to shout myself hoarse, invoke Jesus Christ far too many times for a Buddhist, dance on the inside (so as not to embarass the Queen of my household), in general make a perfect fool of myself, and……to watch the Dawg Pound. I love those kids. I love that a group of teenagers between 14 – 18 of every gender and stripe can pour out of their cafetaria and form an honor guard for a team leaving to play a game. I love that they all volunteer to wear a certain color for a game – blue now, marroon the next, black on a third day, that they cram themselves in tight and often stand through the whole game. Yes, the whole game. I love that they do an axe-chop over their heads when the calls go against LM (unfairly, but of course!), that they are creative with their cheers, united in their hope. Here’s a look-see from December, 2012.

More than anything else, though, the moment I love best is when the entire Dawg Pound joins in for the last bars of the national anthem, drowning out whatever angelic voice is giving the song their best shot. There is something thrilling about their young voices rising, so proud and glorious, and overpowering, over the thousands of fans in the stadium. It always seems to stun the opposing team whose fans look on, slightly bewildered. Wait, they seem to be saying, aren’t we playing basketball?

They are. But life is played so often in the mind and what you carry in there is what carries you through everything else. For the Aces, it isn’t just a game with five players, two hoops, an orange ball. It is a way of life, a matter of tradition, the abandonment of individual reservations, the embracing of a school. It is school spirit at its best. Who can beat that? Not even the winners go away with that kind of love surrounding their players, their school.

The Aces pulled off a pretty stunning victory in the final minutes of the fourth quarter against Harrisburg. And tonight they head to Williamsport to take on the undefeated New Castle at the state semi-finals. Whatever happens on the court, there’s nothing but sportsmanship, gratitude, and real affection for them from their fellow-students – those who will ride the fan buses nearly three hours each way, and those who will be watching from home. Top that, New Castle.

The Books:

The Books:

On Sal Mal Lane

In the tradition of In the Time of the Butterflies and The Kite Runner, a tender, evocative novel about the years leading up to the Sri Lankan civil war.

A Disobedient Girl

A Disobedient Girl is a compelling map of womanhood, its desires and loyalties, set against the backdrop of beautiful, politically turbulent, Sri Lanka.